In the gap

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on August 30, 2019

This weekend, I run off to Kerala with my niece from Chennai. We arrive in Coimbatore at 3.15pm, are met by a kindly family friend. By 5pm we arrive in lush and beautiful Palakkad, welcomed to the home of a beloved aunt.

My niece and I have never been to this part of Kerala before. Just by the border with Tamil Nadu, it’s a place where the jagged peaks of the Western Ghats take a break — the famous Palghat Gap — before continuing towards the southern tip of India. All the way from the airport, we see the sharp toothy peaks of the Ghats on our right, wreathed in swift-moving clouds. Powered by the still-active monsoon, these giant white powder puffs tumble playfully above emerald green fields and swaying stands of coconut palms.

We spend three happy days in the company of our aunt and her son. One of the highlights of our stay is a drive to Malampuzha Dam. The reservoir is full. In every direction the land roars green and fresh. Honeymoon couples cuddle beside trickling waterfalls, taking selfies. The park is full of children in glittery long-skirts, their sneakers flashing with neon lights. When the man at a little chai-shop asks, “Where are you from?” I say, “Delhi!” feeling like an intergalactic traveller.

Back in the house, two other delights. One is playing REAL Scrabble — on a board, with wooden tiles! Our aunt is an ace-player. “I’m not so good,” she says, “you’ll beat me hands down!” But we have three close-fought games and one total rout (of me). She plays her turns before I can replace my tiles and calculates the scores quicker than my niece’s iPhone. Even though I play endless online tournaments of Words With Friends with my sister in Hartford, I’ve grown lazy with the automatic scoring and the hateful “modern” spellings: Fiz! jin! velt! IZ! JIN! VELT! Oh sacrilege and suffering dictionaries! On a physical board with smooth-sided tiles, I struggle to survive without my electronic crutches.

The second delight is the photo albums. So many wonderful memories of days gone by: Clan gatherings in front of family homes; tiny babies in frilly white frocks; those same babies growing up, growing away, returning with their own. Our families are joined only at the cousins-and-marriage level yet we’ve always been close. We’ve stayed in one another’s homes, laughed and cried, shared scary medical moments, sung She’ll be coming ’round the mountain on Delhi-to-Madras car journeys and gone on mad-cap Scavenger Hunts on New Year’s Eve nights. And the picnics! Coffee in thermos flasks and egg sandwiches with mayo!

For three days we eat all kinds of familiar Kerala delicacies made by the three lady caretakers: Neyi pattal — “starfish” — the first night, puttu the second, fish curry and fried white-bait the third. Then on the fourth day a smiling taxi driver speaking Tamil and Malayalam bears us to the airport, to the clouds and far away once more.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on August 30, 2019

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